310 – Additionality can be tricky to assess

Many environmental policies and programs pay public money to people or businesses (or give them tax breaks or discounts) to encourage them to adopt more environmentally friendly practices and behaviours. A seemingly common-sense rule for these sorts of programs is that we shouldn’t pay people to do things that they were going to do anyway, without payment. But it can be quite a hard rule to apply in practice.

The idea that we shouldn’t pay people to do things that they were going to do anyway goes under the name of “additionality”. (It is also related to the with-versus-without principle in Benefit: Cost Analysis, and the concept of market failure – see PD272).

The idea behind “additionality” is that, when a program pays money to people to change their behaviours, the environmental benefits that result should be additional to the environmental benefits that would have occurred anyway, in the absence of the payments.

The reason this matters is that, if we are able to target payments to those behaviours that do result in additional environmental benefits, we’ll end up with greater environmental benefits overall, compared to paying for non-additional benefits – we’ll get better value for taxpayers’ money.

Some environmental programs do a poor job of checking for additionality. As I noted in PD272, much of the money given to farmers in US agri-environmental programs is not additional. In Australia, the Direct Action program for climate change doesn’t consider additionality well when selecting the winning bids in their reverse auctions (it compares practices before vs after signing up to the program, not with versus without).

So, environmental programs that allocate money to people or businesses should worry about additionality, but how? It can be harder than it sounds. It’s all very well to say, “only pay people if they would not have done it anyway”, but how do we know what they would have done anyway?

Sometimes it’s reasonably easy. There are cases where we can be pretty confident that people would not have done the environmental action, and will not start doing it in future, without a payment or regulation. I suspect that most of the work on Australian farms to fence off waterways to exclude livestock would not have happened without payments to cover the cost of fencing materials.

In the US, the Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to remove agricultural land from production and plant environmentally beneficial species. This is probably mostly buying actions that lead to additional outcomes.

The nature of these additional activities is that they are things that are not normally done by farmers. This is largely because they cost the farmer money.

Judging additionality can be much trickier for environmental actions that also generate enough private benefits to be potentially worth doing by the private individuals or businesses. Zero tillage is a good example. Widespread adoption by farmers of zero tillage in Australia, Canada, the US and some other countries has substantially reduced soil erosion, with a range of off-farm benefits. But the reason this practice has been adopted so widely is that it can be very beneficial to the farmers who adopt it. Paying Australian farmers as a reward for doing zero tillage would be pointless, because most of them are already doing it. The public benefits would not be additional.

But imagine how it was in the early days of zero tillage. From the time when it was first developed, it took several decades for zero tillage to be taken up by most farmers. For the first decade, there were very few adopters. A program looking at subsidising zero tillage in 1990 would probably have judged that the payments would lead to additional benefits, and I would not have blamed them.

In fact, at that time, before the systems and technologies to make zero tillage work as well as it does now had been fully developed, payments in many cases would have satisfied the additionality condition. But only temporarily. At some point, the payments would have needed to be switched off, but judging when to switch them off would have been incredibly difficult. Most likely the payments would have continued for quite a while after additionality was lost.

For some practices, additionality comes and goes. For example, planting perennial pastures sequesters more carbon in soils than is found under annual crops, so it might be worth paying crop farmers to convert. But only if they would not otherwise have done so. The area of perennial pastures in Australia rises and falls over time in response to the prices of livestock products, the performance of available perennial pasture varieties, and the economic performance of cropping. If an agency started to pay farmers to plant perennial pastures, ideally they would keep a close eye on the economics of perennial pastures relative to cropping, in case additionality was lost. If it was lost for a period, then payments for that period are achieving nothing, and could be cut without losing the sequestered carbon.

But how would the agency know? The economics of a mixed farming system are very complex, and highly context specific. I worked on nothing but the economics of mixed farming systems for about 15 years, and it would take me quite a bit of effort to assess the additionality of perennial pastures on a particular farm. It would likely vary from paddock to paddock within the farm. The agency could potentially pay consultants to regularly assess the economics, but the costs of doing so on an individual farm would probably outweigh the value of the additional stored carbon.

What the Australian Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund does instead is a before-vs-after comparison of soil carbon, and it assumes that all of the increase is additional for the life of the agreement. This works initially, but the longer the agreement goes on, the larger the chance that additionality will be lost. If it is lost, then the public money allocated for converting to perennial pastures will just be a gift to farmers who would have done it anyway. The gifts could be small and short term or large and long-term; it’s impossible to know in advance. If it turns out to be large and long term, it is the farmer’s good luck – there is no mechanism in the program to turn the payments off.

Should the program have been designed differently? As I said earlier, rigorously assessing additionality on each farm over time is probably not feasible for this practice. It would cost so much that the investment in soil carbon sequestration was not worthwhile.

Additionality could be assessed for a region, rather than for many individual farms. That would make it more affordable, but given the high heterogeneity of the economics of perennial pastures within a region, or even within a farm, the assessment would be wrong in many cases. Still it might be judged to be acceptable as a compromise.

The other alternative is not to provide payments for soil carbon sequestration at all. Personally, that would be my recommendation. There are other problems with paying for soil carbon as well – leakage and permanence, not just additionality (Thamo and Pannell 2017) – and I don’t believe it’s possible to develop a sound policy that is worth the transaction costs.

Although assessing additionality can be difficult, I’m not saying that it is irrelevant. It is always worth thinking it through carefully when setting up an environmental program, and sometimes it is feasible to do a reasonably reliable assessment of it at reasonable cost. But not always. If not, then the program managers have to judge whether the risk of non-additionality is so high that it is not worth proceeding with the program. That’s a difficult judgement that should not be made lightly.

Further reading

Thamo, T. and Pannell, D.J. (2016). Challenges in developing effective policy for soil carbon sequestration: perspectives on additionality, leakage, and permanence, Climate Policy 16, 973–992. Journal web page

10 Comments

  • 14 November, 2017 - 4:58 am | link

    Thanks David – nice work. The fact that much of the externalities that these programs seek to address are joint products of private economic activity is also often ignored by (partisan) policy proponents and those supporting the analyses under strict briefs from their masters. Then only University Academics are left to really delve into the analysis and points these out. Much of the problem has been the source of funds for these work. ARC often ignore the type of work and other industry/program linked funding are ‘guided’.

    • 17 November, 2017 - 7:35 am | link

      The ARC is moving towards assessing impact in the coming round of the ERA assessment. I expect this will contribute to a change of culture in universities, to some extent, with more encouragement and reward of researchers to try to make a difference to policy and management.

  • 14 November, 2017 - 6:08 am | link

    Thanks David, great article, will be a very useful one to refer back to!

  • 15 November, 2017 - 11:58 am | link

    You may not know, David, that friend and colleague Geoff Pearce has written a paper ‘Direct Drilling Comes to Australia via WA’ it is dated March 2017. Geoff has written an accurate history of Direct Drilling (DD) and what morphed into being called No Till. The reasons why farmers in WA adopted DD as quickly as they did, and quicker than you hint at, are quite obvious. They could plant more crop, in less time for less cost and still largely maintain stocking rates. Geoff’s paper is available here: http://researchlibrary.agric.wa.gov.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1041&context=pubns

    F. Vanclay and G. Lawrence in their paper: Farmer Rationality and Adoption of Environmental Sound Practices; A Critique of the Assumptions of Traditional Agricultural Extension http://www.bib.wau.nl/ejae/v1n1-5.html also have a usful contribution to make to your discussion regarding farmer adoption of matters environmental.

    Lastly in the 2002 Land Management and Salinity Survey, 76% to 100% of farms in the Avon Region were affected by salt. Northern and South Coast 51% to 76%. Southwest 26% to 50%. Eighty two percent of those farmers claimed that a limited or very limited financial resource prevented them from doing anything about their encroaching salt land; 68.4% claimed lack of time 31.2% claimed insufficient/inadequate information and 38.1% had doubts about their likely success.
    I suspect little has changed out there, some say the salt is less, others that it is not growing, my personal obs driving up the Albany Hwy over the last 50 years, and wandering around the wheatbelt is that the rate of the loss of production due to salinity continues, the problem is we have stopped measuring it, nobody has it at front of mind and there certainly isn’t any money anywhere! Hope that adds a bit to your topic.

  • Brian Bycroft
    16 November, 2017 - 12:31 pm | link

    An area where the principle of additionality is routinely ignored is in the growing use of ‘off-sets’ to allow an otherwise unsustainable practice to be undertaken. In many instances the ‘off-set’ is an activity that is likely to have gone ahead in any case, or where it should go ahead, based on its merits. A good ‘bad’ example is in SE Queensland where the nutrient discharge of a STP was relaxed on the condition an eroded riverbank was stabilised.

    • 16 November, 2017 - 2:55 pm | link

      Yes, being realistic about additionality is critical for good decision making about offsets. If the regulator approves an offset that is actually not additional (e.g. protection of uncleared land that was never going to be cleared) then the overall result is a loss of environmental values. The development goes ahead, but the offset achieves nothing. Another way of saying this is that you need to be clear about the counter-factual (what would have happened without the offset). The additional gain is only the gain relative to the counter-factual. Some systems do recognise this, but I agree that there are some offsets around that really look non-additional.

      • Brian Bycroft
        17 November, 2017 - 5:30 am | link

        Thanks David, I always find your articles interesting and thought provoking.
        Although slightly off topic, the rise in the application of off-sets has come about, I believe, because decision makers are reluctant to reject a proposal. To overcome this, the concept of off-sets has boomed. Unfortunately, most off-sets I have seen fail either the additionality principle or the equivalence principle.

        • 17 November, 2017 - 7:31 am | link

          I think you’re probably right about that reluctance. I’m not so concerned about equivalence, but lack of additionality is a big problem.

          • Brian Bycroft
            17 November, 2017 - 7:49 am | link

            I was influenced by the Carmichael mine (Adani) decision. Here, destruction of habitat of the endangered black-throated finch is meant to be off-set by construction of ‘equivalent’ habitat elsewhere. However, the condition is written in such a way that existing habitat can be destroyed many years before any new habitat is created or indeed functional. It is unclear how the finch is expected to survive in the meantime!

            It seems to me to be inescapable that any off-set must be demonstrably functional before the original habitat is destroyed. This is rarely reflected in the conditions imposed

          • 17 November, 2017 - 9:27 am | link

            Strongly agree. If there is a time gap, the offset would need to be significantly larger.

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